Photos by Betty Guevara
By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
Officials said that the origin and cause of the Sept. 22 Port of Los Angeles fire on Berths 177 and 179, but some damage is yet to be determined.
“We are still way too early to determine any type of estimate,” said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman, Capt. Jaime Moore.
The good news was that no one was injured during the fire.
Arson investigators determined that workers in the area were doing a soldering operation. The welding caused the fire. The fire spread because of timber impregnated with creosote. The wharf was about 50 by 800 feet.
“At one point, there was fire in the entire length of the wharf,” said LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas, during a news conference on Sept. 23. “The wharf created significant challenges for us. It’s constructed of heavy wood timber — two layers of that. It’s covered with multiple layers of asphalt. The wood is coated in creosote — that’s hydrocarbon carcinogen.”
The fire department used its powerful fire boats, including one that pours 40,000 gallons of water per minute, to sweep the entire length of the wharf. After a few hours, the tactic proved to be successful. Scuba divers continued to help to put out the fire.
The fire, which still was smoldering, was more than 90 percent contained by noon Sept. 23. Residents in neighboring communities were advised to keep indoors with their windows closed to reduce the impacts of pollutants, byproducts of hydrocarbons and creosote. Extended exposure to the pollutants can cause nasal and throat irritation as well as minor headaches.
“We continue to advise people to use common sense,” said Philip Fine, the assistant deputy executive director for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. “We do have monitors in the community and we’ve looked into data over the past 17 hours. We haven’t seen anything exceed federal or state standards — I think they are 24-hour average standards — but we have seen short-term spikes.”
While these guidance levels do not exceed any state standards, people with respiratory conditions may have a little difficulty breathing.
“The levels we are seeing here are not extreme,” said Fine, comparing it to a regional wild fire with smoke over an entire basin.
The South Coast AQMD found elevated levels of naphthalene – a product of the burnt creosote in the community– but nothing that would be an acute health risk, Fine said.
Sts. Peter & Paul School in Wilmington, was closed for the day. However, De La Torre Jr. Elementary School, also in Wilmington, decided to stay open. School officials said most schools are safer than staying at home.
“We have an air filtration system at the vast majority of schools in this region that is at the 16 filtration level, which is higher than hospitals,” said Lydia Ramos, director of communications. “Hospitals are at 14.”
And yet, a little after 11 a.m., LAUSD officials decided to evacuate the school because of the smoke. Teachers and students were taken to San Pedro High School’s John Olguin campus. The students were brought back to De La Torre at about 1:20 to be picked up by their parents.
“Because the winds shifted, the LA Fire Department advised us this mid-morning that because of the winds shifting that it would be advisable to move the students,” Ramos said. “The other schools in the area are being monitored. But … there are no levels that are above state and federal regulations.”
The U.S. Coast Guard, the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles are enforcing waterside safety zone to ensure that work the fireman are doing is not impeded.
The retardant foam used to fight the fire and the creosote residue was in the water-wing like huge bubble bath pool. A contractor was hired to clean the pollution.
Fire fighting efforts were expected to continue through the remaining of Sept. 23.
Four terminals in the port continued operating, while 11 voluntarily decided not to work in the earlier part of the day.
While the city is seeking to modernize the port, changing out the wooden wharfs, may not all happen anytime soon, said Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“This is a huge piece or real estate,” Garcetti said. “We seek to modernize. There is no guarantee …. Fires can happen with the buildings that we have here, as well, over time.”
Terminals at the Port of Los Angeles resumed operations at 6 p.m. Sept. 23. Only the Pasha terminal at Berth 177, the location of the fire, will remain closed. Nearby Yusen Terminals International will reopen at 8 a.m. on Sept. 24.